Alienation, loneliness, boredom – these are all traits that we’ve felt over the course of our lives. No one is ever the star player or the popular kid or the rock star all the time, so even though we know the highs, we are keenly aware of the lows. But what if you never had either? What if every day was spent by yourself? How would you even know what life is like? That’s the question asked by “Alone,” previously published in French as “Tout Seul,” by Christophe Chabouté.
Written and illustrated by Christophe Chabouté
Translated by Ivanka Hahnenberger
Available in English for the first time—the internationally bestselling graphic novel and an Official Selection at France’s prestigious Angoulême Internaional Comics Festival by master illustrator-storyteller Chabouté (Park Bench, Moby-Dick).
On a tiny lighthouse island far from the rest of the world, a lonely hermit lives out his existence. Every week a supply boat leaves provisions, its occupants never meeting him, never asking the obvious questions: Who are you? Why do you hide? Why do you never leave? What is it like to be so alone?
Years spent on a deserted rock—a lifetime, really—with imagination his sole companion has made the lighthouse keeper something more than alone, something else entirely. For him, what lies beyond the horizon might be…nothing. And so, why not stay put? But one day, as a new boatman starts asking the questions all others have avoided, a chain of events unfolds that will irrevocably upend the hermit’s solitary life….
Filled with stunning and richly executed black-and-white illustrations, Alone is Chabouté’s masterpiece—an unforgettable tale where tenderness, despair, and humor intertwine to flawlessly portray how someone can be an everyman, and every man is someone.
“Alone” is a study in quiet, in patience, in longing, and in thought. The book’s plot, simplified, is that there is a man who lives in a lighthouse on an island, and has been alone for 15 years, since his father died. Due to his gruesome appearance, he has been hid for his entire life, and only knew his parents. That bit of exposition is given to the reader in the form of two fishermen who bring supplies each week to the man. Aside from that initial interaction, the vast majority of the book takes place in silence.
Chabouté excels at these portions of the story. His artwork is purposely not kinetic, showing snapshots of the world, without implying too much motion. In fact, unlike most comics you’ll read, the purpose of his panels is not to suggest motion, but rather stillness. Despite living on the sea, Alone (the name the townspeople have given the man in the lighthouse)’s life is incredibly still. He has a pet fish, he has a dictionary he plays roulette with (opening it up and picking a word at random), and he likes to fish. Aside from that, we aren’t given too much information about Alone, aside from one important piece: he wants to know what the world is like.
Despite the isolation, Chabouté doesn’t play up the situation for an artificial emotional payoff. The definitions could’ve been far more on the nose, or his quarters could have been supremely depressing. But that’s not the story Chabouté is telling, thankfully. From his fish to his frying pan, Alone seems well taken care of, given his circumstances. It would’ve been so easy to tamper with the reader’s emotions by having him crying, or writing letters to his dead parents. But Chabouté doesn’t do that; instead, we see him living his small life. That life looks sad to us, but doesn’t necessarily to him, until he’s confronted by the outside world in a new way.
Alone interacts with two types of people in the story: those that are trying to communicate with him, and those that have no idea he exists. It is through the kindness of the former and the exoticism of the latter that give him the desire to attempt to change his life. Both of these interactions are played in such a restrained matter that it is truly surprising. When a visitor is stranded on the lighthouse island for a few hours, it would have been so easy to let Alone’s visage frighten them or fill them with pity (the Frankenstein or Hunchback of Notre Dame reactions).Continued below
Similarly, someone wanting to connect with Alone through letters could have been milked for lots of exposition or find resistance from one party or the other. But none of that happens; both parties react honestly and in an understated matter. On the surface, this should’ve been a challenge for Chabouté, but he manages to both avoid and play into the sentiments that the reader brings to the text, but twists them in a way that feels absolutely honest.
Alone’s face is another example of Chabouté’s restraint. While he is certainly unpleasant to look at – Quasimoto from the aforementioned Hunchback of Notre Dame is a fair comparison, though I also see a bit of Christopher Lee’s Monster from The Curse of Frankenstein – he isn’t so over the top disgusting that you couldn’t see him functioning in society at some level. That said, he also isn’t just a minor ugmo, in the “he’s been hidden away for no reason!” scenario, either. Chabouté finds a middle ground that works perfectly for the story.
And that is, perhaps, the most impressive part of the book. This is a story that could have been so many things – mainly bad things at that – but Chabouté grounds it right in the middle of every stereotype the reader may bring to it. Sure, Alone is gruesome, but he’s not a monster. Yes, the book is sad, but every opportunity for the maudlin is rejected outright. And while the story ends on a hopeful note, its hopefulness is couched in reality. I doubt the book would have read much differently if I encountered it in French, a language I cannot read, as Chabouté is so masterful at telling a clear visual tale. It is as true a use of the comic medium as you’re likely to see, even when bucking against many of its conventions.